Throwing America a Life Preserver

Professor Robert Pape’s brilliant new book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism gives Americans an urgently needed basis for devising a strategy to defeat Osama bin Laden and other Islamist militants. In scholarly and low-key prose, Pape delivers the results of his own extensive research and that done by the University of Chicago’s Project on Suicide Terrorism. In so doing, Pape demolishes the relentlessly repeated assertion of the neoconservatives and Israeli politicians that Islamist suicide attacks against America and other counties are launched by undereducated, unemployed, alienated, apocalyptic fanatics who are eager to kill themselves because Americans vote, have civil liberties, and allow women to drive cars. This assertion always has been transparently false, and I have argued so in my own work on al-Qaeda. It has been, however, an assertion that is easy to protect because its authors simply dismiss their critics by calling them anti-Semites, thereby foreclosing debate. But Pape avoids contentious rhetoric and employs facts to kill the assertion, and he does so coolly and with the precision of a Marine sniper.

The basis of Dying to Win is Pape’s study of the 315 known suicide terrorist attacks that occurred in the world between 1980 and 2003, attacks carried out by Muslims, Tamils, Sikhs, and Kurds. Pape concludes that “the data show there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any of the world’s religions.”

“Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organizations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.”

Yes, Pape has documented both the valid logic behind the use of suicide attacks – they are an effective weapon for an inferior force fighting a great power, especially a pain-averse, democratic great power – and the reality that groups using such attacks are playing for strategic stakes: Their goal is victory, not mere destruction. The suicide attacks by each of the groups studied in Dying to Win, Pape concludes, were “mainly a response to foreign occupation rather than the product of Islamic fundamentalism.” In sum, America faces a logical, patient, and deliberate enemy, one with clear strategic goals. This enemy is attacking because he perceives his country, culture, and/or religion are under attack. In addition, Pape shows conclusively that suicide attackers are usually respected and even revered in their own societies because they are defending those societies against a foreign threat. Simply put, Pape suggests there is no sound reason to believe the pool of potential suicide attackers can be dried up as long as their societies perceive an existential threat to their existence.

Pape’s conclusions flow into a set of recommendations that cannot be too highly commended to American leaders and citizens, whatever their political persuasion: For near-term self-defense, America must kill as many of this generation of terrorists as possible while simultaneously beginning to terminate the interventionist policies and presence that motivate our present enemies and, if continued, will motivate greater numbers in the next generation. Pape warns that the hands-on, Wilsonian crusaders who today control both U.S. political parties have already vastly increased the likelihood of another 9/11 attack via their efforts to use military force to spread democracy abroad; this he calls the “taproot” of the suicide attackers’ motivation. Pape argues that the “most important” concept for Americans – the leaders and the led – is that

“[A]n attempt to transform Muslim societies through regime change is likely to dramatically increase the threat we face. The root cause of suicide terrorism is foreign occupation and the threat that foreign military presence poses to the local community’s way of life. Hence, any policy that seeks to conquer Muslim societies in order, deliberately, to transform their culture is folly. Even if our intentions are good, anti-American terrorism would likely grow, and grow rapidly.”

This reality, Pape recognizes, will require changes in America’s relations with the Persian Gulf states, getting our military out of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, and the implementation of an energy policy that makes Arab oil production substantially less important to our economy. In other words, America must heed John Quincy Adam’s advice that disaster lurks for America in every effort it undertakes to destroy monsters abroad in order to install democracy in their place. What Adams knew based on historical study and intuition, Pape has splendidly documented with cold, hard facts. All honor and praise to Professor Robert Pape and his colleagues at the University of Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism not only for solid and penetrating research, but for leaving the neoconservatives, the Israelis, and the world’s other Wilsonian democracy-installers with the formidable task of finding a way to attribute “anti-Semitism” to the mass of data painstakingly accumulated and evenhandedly presented in the invaluable book, Dying to Win.

Author: Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer is a 22-year veteran of the CIA and the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror.